Perhaps New Helvetia’s problem isn’t the homeless. Maybe they should just brew better beer

When I read that the owner of New Helvetia Brewing Co. was citing homeless people as a reason his business was slow, my first thought was: “No, that’s not it.”

I’ve been to New Helvetia. It’s cool. The beer is decent. The owners are nice. It’s the kind of place you want to see succeed and I have seen homeless people around while having beers there with friends.

But I don’t think they are struggling because of homeless people. I think they are struggling because Sacramento has become a booming beer town and we have more and better choices operating very close to New Helvetia on Broadway.

Bike Dog is on Broadway and, last I checked, it is thriving. Tower Cafe is on Broadway, and even though the venerable Sacramento eatery isn’t a brewery, it’s still killing it in the cut-throat restaurant business. Every day it has lines out the door with no shortage of homeless people in the area. Are there more homeless people on Broadway than K Street? More than outside Mayahuel, Ella, Mother, Empress Tavern, Pizza Rock? They seem to be doing great.

In midtown, the Federalist is in a shipping container, in an alley. It’s doing great. Urban Roots is also in an earthy central city neighborhood where residents are used to seeing homeless people. I could go on and on, but you get the point.


Before we get to the main point, let’s rally around this idea: Let’s not condemn New Helvetia owner Dave Gull for writing this on a neighborhood Facebook page: “I’m not here to start a debate about the homeless issue or to assign blame, but I have to acknowledge a simple truth ... if you fear coming to Broadway, or perceive Broadway (and by default, New Helvetia Brewery) to be unsafe or sketchy or scary, then I need to do something to calm that fear.”

Why not condemn him? Because our entire community is experiencing a kind of reckoning on homelessness. As the crisis has proliferated, we’ve struggled with our frustration at seeing pop-up encampments of desperate people living on the streets. I would bet that many of us have thought or expressed ideas similar to Gull.

City Councilman Larry Carr, while opposing a homeless shelter in his Meadowview neighborhood, told an audience at a community meeting that he had promised his predecessor that he would not allow the city to put “junk” near the Pannell Community Center.

I used to adopt a very strident tone on homelessness. Many of us are guilty of letting our frustration get the better of us, so let’s not turn around and condemn a community guy worried about his business.

In the digital age, shaming people has become a sport. Let’s not do it here.

Instead, let’s focus on a bigger point: This homeless crisis we are experiencing is here and it’s not going away. It’s part of daily life. Plenty of businesses cope with it and thrive despite it. And not just in Sacramento but across the country and across the nation.

Dealing with homelessness and the plight of New Helvetia are two separate issues. To get people off the streets, Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg has been pushing his council colleagues to locate and get approval for shelters around the city that will get people into services. A shelter is coming for the people very near New Helvetia.

“Mayor Darrell Steinberg hopes to assuage Gull and other Broadway business owners’ concerns about the homeless over an upcoming meeting,” said mayoral spokeswoman Mary Lynne Vellinga. A 100-bed homeless shelter announced last Tuesday will open a mile from New Helvetia in spring 2020, and the city recently sued to ban seven men with histories of property and drug crimes from Broadway and its surrounding area, wrote The Bee’s Benjy Egel.

We need to wrap our minds around the idea that doing nothing on homelessness will accomplish nothing. If you don’t like the idea of shelters, come up with a better idea. If you can’t, then your complaints are not helping anything. If anything, we should use New Helvetia as an example of what we need to avoid to move the needle on homelessness.

We need to support and fund more ways to get people off our streets. The more ideas the better. But blaming homeless people falls flat when we look around and see other businesses doing well.

If you live near New Helvetia, check it out. It’s a good place. Gull is a good guy. We should all support our neighborhood businesses.

But if Gull wants to draw from more than just the neighborhood, I have a suggestion as a beer drinker who only consumes the work of local brewers: Brew better beer.

Related stories from Sacramento Bee

Marcos Breton writes commentary and opinion columns about the Sacramento region, California and the United States. He’s been a California newspaperman for more than 30 years. He’s a graduate of San Jose State University, a voter for the Baseball Hall of Fame and the proud son of Mexican immigrants.